Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems

Solving Collective Action Problems


Fortunately, as we learned at the close of the last section, we are not doomed to suffer the consequences of failing to cooperate on collective action problems. People can and often do act collectively, even if they still hold selfish ethical views.

There are three major types of solutions to collective action problems:

  • Government regulation: A government can declare it against the law to act selfishly and require individuals to cooperate.
  • Private ownership: If someone owns a resource, then he or she can restrict access to it. Furthermore, it will be in his or her interest to prevent the resource from collapsing.
  • Community mobilization: Groups of individuals can informally work together to foster cooperation.

Historically, academic research on collective action problems focused on government regulation and private ownership. Researchers often assumed that without the formalized mechanisms of government and private property, individuals could not come together to cooperate. As we noted in the last section, Garrett Hardin - author of The Tragedy of the Commons - was advocating for privatization (he was also, incidentally, a neomalthusian.) However, over recent years, research has shown that community mobilization can be successful – and often is. Furthermore, we now know that in many cases government regulation and private ownership fail to solve collective action problems. Much of what we know about community mobilization comes from the research of Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom was a political scientist who spent most of her career at Indiana University and Arizona State University before she passed away in 2012. For her work, Ostrom was a co-recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics – the first woman ever to receive this award.

Reading Assignment: "Commons Sense"

Please read the article "Commons Sense" from The Economist, available online.

As you read this, think about what factors make some types of solutions to collective actions succeed and others fail. How might you use these insights to help solve collective action problems in your own life?

The viability of community mobilization is especially important because it is often the only option available. Governments have busy agendas and cannot consider all collective action problems. Some resources cannot be owned privately. But we can often connect with each other informally (i.e. outside of government channels) and work together to foster collective action.

Social Norms

One important component of community mobilization is the establishment of social norms.

Social norms are views or practices that a group of individuals considers to be normal. They are “unwritten rules” that a group of people, a community, or society adhere to. Social norms define our default behaviors. Tipping your server in a restaurant in the U.S. is a good example of a social norm. You are not required to leave a tip by law, and it is generally not included in the bill, but it is so expected that servers are often paid very low hourly wages based on the assumption that they will earn tips. And failing to tip - even if you are from another country where tipping is not the norm - can be taken as an offense.

Consider This: Cycling as a Social Norm in Copenhagen

Copenhagen has a strong tradition for people to cycle. The Danish capital is world famous for its cycling culture, but the bike culture of Copenhagen was threatened in the 1960s with the advent of car culture. People in Copenhagen have spent several decades seeking ways to “take the city back” and reestablishing the bike as a most popular means of transport.

Please watch the following 5-minute video.

Copenhagen's Climate-Friendly, Bike-Friendly Streets
Click here for a transcript.

MIKAEL COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: We're here in Copenhagen. Welcome to Copenhagen. Climate conference is in full swing at the moment.

And we're standing here on what is regarded as the busiest bicycle street in the Western world. We have a long proud tradition of cycling in Denmark, and in Copenhagen. It all started to disappear in the 1960s, with the advent of car culture.

We've spent the last 30 years working hard towards re-establishing the bicycle as a feasible and acceptable form of transport here in the city.

We can see here, we're standing next to one in the city of Copenhagen's bicycle counters. And there's two reasons for implementing these bicycle counters in Copenhagen. One of them is, that the data that is gathered here is transmitted to the city-- so they can track patterns, weather patterns-- if it's snowing, how many people are riding today, or what not.

But it's also to instill a form of civic pride in Copenhagen. Because you know what, we don't notice the bicycles. The bicycles are tools for us. It's the quickest way to get around the city.

So instilling the kind of civic pride in Copenhageners. Hey, you know what, you live in the world's cycling capital, and look how many people are riding. And hopefully this will encourage more people to ride.

In Copenhagen at the moment, we have 37% of all commuters choosing to bicycle to work, or to educational institutions, or schools, or whatnot-- 37%. Actually, if you look at the number of all trips by bike-- to the supermarket, to the cinema-- we're up to 55% in the city of Copenhagen. But we're actually working towards increasing these numbers. We want the number of commuters on bike up to 50% by 2015.

We're going to take a ride around Copenhagen and see some of the infrastructural things that we were doing to encourage more people to cycle, and to keep our cyclists safe. And this street here is called Norrebrogade-- Northbridge Street. And we're going to take a ride up here, because this is actually quite a well-known street this year, and the last couple of years-- from an urban planning perspective, and a bicycle planning perspective.

You can see on this stretch-- this is the busiest bicycle street in the Western world-- over 38,000 cyclists. But what we've done, first of all, is on some of the busy stretches we've doubled the bike lanes. We took another lane away from the cars. And we have a double bike lane here to accommodate the enormous amount of traffic.

This is the first place in the world where we created the green wave for cyclists. For six kilometers into the center of the city, all the traffic lights are coordinated for bikes. You have to ride 20 kilometers an hour. If you do that, you're not going to put a foot down all the way to the center of the city.

The evolution of our bicycle culture and our bicycle infrastructure-- it's always evolving. We're always working on improving safety, improving the mobility of the bicycles. At a lot of intersections, we have pre-greens, we call them, where the lights for bicycles turn green seconds before the car.

It's between two seconds, and in some cases up to 12 seconds before the cars. And this is just to allow the bicycle traffic to start flowing. But every intersection is individual.

This intersection used to be one of the most dangerous intersections in Denmark. 15 serious accidents a year in this intersection here by the lake. So now, we've reduced it to one serious accident a year, which is absolutely amazing.

And this is brand new from last week, is that we've introduced LED lights on our bicycle infrastructure, to help avoid right-turn conflicts between cars and bikes. So what we have is, these flashing lights that indicate that a bicycle is on the way through the intersection. So it's only visible to cars and their side mirrors. They're not visible for the cyclists who are riding, because we would rather have them looking at the traffic.

So now you can see they've turned off. The cyclists have stopped, and the cars are allowed to turn. One of the things that makes Copenhagen very unique is, the number of cargo bikes that we have here. When so few people own cars, we still need to transport various things around. In Copenhagen, there's about 30,000 cargo bikes on the streets every day. These are really our SUVs. You cannot live without them.

The bike I've been riding on today-- I pick up my two kids every day from school and daycare, and go to the supermarket and whatnot. So the problem with these is, that they're expensive. You don't really want to leave them on the street. The city of Copenhagen has a new initiative, which they're just test driving at the moment. And this is a way to give our cargo bikes a place to park on the street.

It's a car, but there's cargo bikes in it. And it's locked, and it's secured. And we took away one parking spot for cars by implementing this here. So there's room for four people to park, where there used to be only room for one.

If you make the bicycle the quickest way to get around the city for the citizens-- with separated bicycle infrastructure, with lots of initiatives for the bicycle-- you're going to get everybody and their dog to do it. And they're going to do their bit for the environment, and for reducing pollution in the city. And all the good things-- and for the public health.

I hope we can inspire other cities to do the same improvement in the bicycle as a respected and accepted and feasible form of transport. And really, this is bicycle culture 2.0. The bicycle wasn't invented yesterday. All cities in the world used to have bicycles as a main feature on the urban landscape.

We did it again here in Copenhagen. Other cities are doing it again. It's possible for every city in the world.

The video conveys one important message that Copenhagen's cycling haven was not designed and constructed overnight. Through many years of community mobilization efforts, the city now boasts some of the most extensive infrastructures for cyclists and most bicycle-friendly practices thanks to the consistency in prioritizing cyclists on the street.

In addition, cycling is considered as a basic skill in Copenhagen. Most children are taught to ride a bike at home and they can cycle by the time they start school. All this helps make cycling an ingrained part of Copenhagen’s culture and (re)establishes cycling as a social norm in Copenhagen. Given how strong this social norm is, it is easy to forget that this wasn’t always the case and that quite a lot of citizen effort was required to make Copenhagen what it is today.

The fact that the citizens of Copenhagen achieved so much is encouraging to citizens of other cities who are interested in achieving similar results. While the car has become the dominant mode of transport in today’s society, one of the keys to the establishment of a new social norm is the integration of public and stakeholder engagement in creating an enabling environment for normalizing cycling as part the culture of the city.

This simple procedure can be very effective in small communities, such as the homes we live in. But what about our home planet? Do the procedures work at larger scales? Big global environmental issues like climate change (module 9) and biodiversity loss (module 10) present very challenging collective action problems due to their massive scale. These issues involve billions of people across the entire planet. We simply cannot establish one single social norm for so many people! However, we can still use social norms to promote cooperative action, even if the social norms affect only a small portion of the relevant individuals.